Rejecting the new “Peace Plan” is a moral imperative

It’s been a month since the Trump administration released its Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People. The plan drew mixed reactions among Israelis and the Palestinians rejected it unequivocally. Knowing the plan would be controversial, the writers painstakingly explained that it was “realistic” and based on complex on-the-ground realities. They asked readers to be intellectually honest and open minded when considering their proposals. Having done that, here are four reasons why I believe Christians, especially, should not support it.

First, the plan is unfair and unjust both in process and substance. The Palestinians were not consulted in its creation, and their absence is apparent throughout the document. This is deeply problematic because, if implemented, the plan will have a profound impact on their future. Though described as an “opening offer” by administration officials, the plan dictates outcomes on the most contentious issues—Jerusalem, refugees, and borders—all in a manner most favorable to Israel and the administration asks that it be the new anchor in future negotiations. Further highlighting the asymmetries, the phrase “subject to Israeli” security requirements, consideration, civilian administration, or responsibility appears throughout the document as a limitation to a wide range of possible Palestinian actions.

Although the rhetoric of concern for the livelihoods and aspirations of the Palestinian people abounds throughout the Vision, ultimately its substance belies it. This is shown most starkly in the conditioning of the implementation of the economic component of the plan on Palestinian acceptance and full implementation of the (unfair) political terms. Given the dire economic condition of the Palestinian people, this requirement can only be interpreted as coercion.

The unfairness of the plan has been noted (and rejected) by the Arab League, Organization for Islamic Cooperation, some congressional Democrats, at least four democratic candidates for president, various members of the United Nations Security Council, members of the European Union and the African Union. The Pope has reportedly alluded to this problem as well.

Second, the plan, particularly as it pertains to Palestinian statehood, is disingenuous. Though employing the language of statehood, what the plan offers Palestinians is not a state in any meaningful sense. In fact, given the many preconditions, it is unclear if it can be considered an offer at all.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories summarizes some of the problems as follows:

“The Palestinian statelet … would be scattered archipelagos of non-contiguous territory completely surrounded by Israel, with no external borders, no control over its airspace, no right to a military to defend its security, no geographic basis for a viable economy … and with no ability to complain to international judicial forums against Israel ….”

The proposed entity is so confounding that observers have struggled to find a term that adequately describes it. Some have called it a “state-minus,” “pseudo-state,” even a “21st century Bantustan.” Mahmoud Abbas likened the settlement-scarred territory to “Swiss cheese.”  The Administration rather unconvincingly addresses the obvious geography problem by pointing to the “innovative” transportation system that will connect the enclaves, supposedly rendering their lack of contiguity irrelevant. As for the lack of meaningful markers of statehood (particularly true self-determination), it argues that we need to change our understanding of sovereignty. “Sovereignty is an amorphous concept” and in our interdependent world states can enter “agreements that set parameters essential to each state,” they write. Sure, but in this case the Palestinians are not voluntarily ceding the most essential attributes of statehood, those are being taken away from them at the onset.

Moreover, to even have the privilege of statehood, the writers impose preconditions such as the two quoted below:

The Palestinians shall have implemented a governing system with a constitution or another system for establishing the rule of law that provides for freedom of press, free and fair elections, respect for human rights for its citizens, protections for religious freedom and for religious minorities to observe their faith, uniform and fair enforcement of law and contractual rights, due process under law, and an independent judiciary with appropriate legal consequences and punishment established for violations of the law.

The Palestinians shall have established transparent, independent, and credit-worthy financial institutions capable of engaging in international market transactions in the same manner as financial institutions of western democracies with appropriate governance to prevent corruption and ensure the proper use of such funds, and a legal system to protect investments and to address market-based commercial expectations. The State of Palestine should meet the independent objective criteria to join the International Monetary Fund.

Whether the Palestinians have met the criteria “must be determined to have occurred by the State of Israel and the United States, jointly, acting in good faith …” the plan reads. Although the substance of the two criteria above is certainly desirable in a 21st century state, it is important to note that for many existing states around the world (that are not considered “failed states”) these remain aspirational. To consider their full realization necessary for the Palestinian state to exist at all is unfair and hypocritical. Moreover, requiring credible institutions before statehood is to put the cart before the horse. The lack of the latter will necessarily cripple the development of the former.

The preceding and the fact that Israel, just weeks after the announcement and without Palestinian input or assent, is already preparing to annex territory in the West Bank and has, along with the United States, already established a committee for the purpose brings into question the genuineness of the offer of Palestinian statehood.

Third, if the plan is implemented, it will undermine rather than enhance Israeli security by legalizing a volatile and unsustainable geographical and political arrangement that will only further dehumanize both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel will indeed become what many of its critics have long argued it already is—a bi-national “apartheid” state. Even former foreign ministers from across Europe have voiced concerns about the inevitability of this outcome. Instead of offering  Palestinians “a path to a dignified national life” as it claims, the plan would only guarantee their subjugation. It will entrench existing racial/ethnic prejudices and injustices (described in this podcast by Israeli journalist Gideon Levy at 11:50-13:00) and this will only further embitter the Palestinians and increase violence. In response, Israel will feel compelled to employ ever more brutal and repressive measures to enhance its security, making peace even more elusive.

Fourth, as written, the plan is disrespectful, condescending, and contemptuous toward the Palestinians both in its spirit and, in some cases, its language. Noting this problem, Daniel Levy described it as a “hate letter” to the Palestinians. With Israeli benignity and stability and Palestinian malignity and instability assumed throughout, it seems the writers lacked an understanding of the importance and delicateness of national pride, and how, when wounded, can harden even the most unreasonable positions.

The plan humiliates the Palestinians by essentially telling them, “We will give you a state that we think is suitable for you when you get yourselves together in manner that satisfies us.” Just in case readers are unsure of my reading of the tone of the document, the administration’s senior adviser on the plan, in his many post-release interviews, left no doubt.

Whatever the path is to Israeli-Palestinian peace, disrespect and contempt cannot be part of it.

If peace is still the goal, the honest (and indeed more effective) approach to this complex situation would have been for the administration to acknowledge that the current conditions are not conducive to the creation of a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that would allow for legitimate Palestinian statehood. Instead of pushing forward a deeply flawed and unrealistic plan, the administration could have focused on creating better conditions by building trust between the parties, working with the international community to address the security threats facing Israel, and fortifying existing domestic and international mechanisms to ensure that the current political and economic conditions do not deteriorate further. Pretending peace is possible at this time and using the peace process for political ends when lives are at stake is dangerous and unethical.

For these reasons, we should not support the Vision.

A note on Christianity Today’s call for the removal of a president

In my very first post on this site, I wrote about the dangers of the politicization of American Christianity, its impacts on Christian witness and the need for an in-house debate among Christians about the matter. That discussion, it appears, is underway.

Just days after the impeachment of President Trump, the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today published an unexpected article highlighting what he considered the immoral conduct of the president and calling for his removal from office. The article crashed the magazine’s website and elicited both positive and negative responses from Christians across the political spectrum. All were passionate.

Following the response, the magazine’s president published a piece unequivocally stating that he believes the “alliance of American evangelicalism with this presidency” has damaged Christian witness both domestically and abroad. He noted the dangers of the hyper-politicization of the American church and reminded Christians that their unconditional loyalty belongs to God alone. He then invited all Christians to the table to continue what, if correctly handled, will be one of the most consequential debates in American Christianity. 

Goodbye idealism, welcome back realpolitik: The moral dangers of the new U.S. position on Israeli settlements

On November 18, 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement indicating that after extensive legal review the current administration did not find Israel’s building of settlements in the West Bank “per se inconsistent with international law.” As expected, the usual cacophony ensued. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the decision saying it “rights a historical wrong;” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat issued a statement calling it evidence of the administration’s “attempts to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle’;” Martin Indyk, former U.S. envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, asked, “why slap the Palestinians in the face again?” The United NationsUnited Kingdom and European Union issued their own statements reaffirming the illegality of the settlements under international law.

Although the Secretary’s statement was accessorized with legal nuance and qualification, it reflected a clear cold political choice: the United States was essentially giving Israel unfettered permission to build settlements in the West Bank, which, depending on how much more construction occurs, could result in de facto annexation. The equivocation seemed only to serve the purpose of giving the administration an “out” should the consequences not be pretty.

Particularly concerning was the secretary’s assertion that calling the settlements illegal had not advanced the cause of peace. His view rang hollow not only because it is unprovable, but also because it misunderstands the role of international law in the peace process. The relevant, though contested, law in this case being the binding Security Council resolutions that have declared the settlements as having no “legal validity” (SC Res. 446, 1979) and their building a “flagrant violation under international law” (SC Res. 2334, 2016) as well as Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) which prohibits the forcible transfer of protected persons from occupied territory. These and other legal principles noted in the International Court of Justice’s 2004 Advisory Opinion on the construction of the wall have provided a rules-based framework (born of many years of hard diplomacy) designed to make the desired political, negotiated solution possible. The law is thus a part of the political process, serving the important purpose of constraining dangerous instincts and providing some semblance of stability in a volatile and complex situation.

Now, by effectively removing what remained of the legal pillar of the peace process, the decision has (1) confirmed the death of the two-state solution, leaving a morally-troubling and politically-questionable alternative in its stead and (2) sanctioned and given renewed moral legitimacy to the idea of rule by the powerful in a world that has slowly and painstakingly been trying to move beyond it. The decision tells our post-World War II world, in the words of Michael Doran in his latest piece in Foreign Affairs, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Had Secretary Pompeo added “get over it,” the message could not have been clearer.

What the impeachment proceedings are telling us about corruption

The impeachment proceedings currently underway in the United States are highlighting an important issue: corruption in economically developed states. With much of the global conversation about corruption focusing mostly on the types or forms of corruption found in countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean and not nearly enough on those in North America and Europe, there tends to be a general perception in the global consciousness that economically developed states are “less corrupt” and if there is a problem, it is not as damaging. Banking scandals in places like Switzerland or the problem of special interests in Washington, DC, for instance, don’t quite carry the same whiff of corruption as the purchase of an opulent home in some exotic location by a Togolese government official even though the dollar amounts in the former far outweigh those in the latter and even though in all cases resources that are meant to serve the public good are being diverted to private use or the sustenance of the wealth, status and power of a few.

With Togo, for instance, observers are quick to draw connections between the corruption and the economic condition of the country, but despite rising income inequality in the economically developed world, they are not as quick to make those same connections. Moreover, it continues to be much easier to see “bribery” or “corruption” in how the Togolese official may have attained his loot than in how a public official in the West might, say, fund his or her re-election campaign. The directness or manner of the exchange rather than its intended result—the advancement or maintenance of the private interests of a few—it appears, determines what is considered improper. We can blame this on the ill- (or limited) definition of the term “corruption,” or we can bring it closer to home and call it willful blindness.

For those with eyes to see, however, the impeachment proceedings are demonstrating how skewed perceptions of corruption have the pernicious effect of masking the enormous economic, social and political costs that it exacts in the economically developed world. The most prominent of these being the erosion of the legitimacy of institutions and the weakening, indeed destruction, of democracy. For those with ears to hear, the proceedings are saying there should be no comfort in the idea that “at least it’s not as bad as in Africa.”

How Christians Can Aid (rather than hinder) Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Peacemaking is hard. It is harder in a complex conflict in which the parties more than occasionally engage in unhelpful behaviors, and hardest when influential peacemakers take a side. For over six decades, the three realities have made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the world’s most intractable. As the world awaits the political component of the current U.S. administration’s peace plan, there are genuine questions about whether its approach—whatever it may be—will make any difference. With the legal, political and diplomatic frameworks for the peace process in disarray and a dysfunctional and fractured Palestinian leadership to boot, prospects for peace seem nonexistent. But if they dare, Christians may have the power to change that.

As I wrote in my post on the Golan heights (March 27), support for Israel among U.S. Christians runs deep. Indeed, some might even consider it not just politically risky but un-Christian to question it. Over the years, however, this often unquestioned commitment has blinded enough Christians to the ways in which they may not only be shaping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also arguably becoming an obstacle to the peace they seek. I’ll highlight just two blind spots here.

First, because many Christians tend to understand the conflict primarily in biblical-theological terms, they abstract its daily on-the-ground realities, and ordinary Palestinians are too often the casualties of this abstraction. Not only are the human rights issues they face daily largely unknown to U.S.-based Christians because of underreporting in the major media outlets, the significance of the few that do come to light is obscured by a theological conviction that is too often, unfortunately, tinged with an understated but powerful us-versus-them politico-cultural hue. The result has been an empathy gap that lessens the gravity of the human rights issues Palestinians face, effectively diminishing their humanity. This has, in turn, lessened the sense of urgency that ordinarily accompanies violations of fundamental human rights and delayed calls for resolution.

It’s time more Christians acknowledge and play an active role in addressing the human rights issues confronting stateless Palestinians.

In his 2019 report, the United Nations’ independent Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories presents an especially troubling portrait of Palestinian life in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Among many problems, he notes housing discrimination that makes it difficult for Palestinians to obtain permits to build homes, the detention of Palestinian children usually for offences such as stone throwing, administrative detentions wherein Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons for purported security reasons on secret evidence and without trial, the punitive demolitions of the homes of the families of suspected terrorists that result in displacement, the lack of accountability among Israel Defense Forces for the wrongful killings of Palestinians, and violence against Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

The report also details the dire economic condition of Palestinians. Citing the International Labor Organization’s finding that the unemployment rate in the Occupied Territories is the highest in the world, the special rapporteur notes that partly because of Israel’s blockade on Gaza, which significantly restricts the ability of Gazans to exploit the full economic potential of their resources, two-thirds of Gaza’s estimated 1.8 million inhabitants live on less than $3.6 USD/day and 68% are food insecure. The latter is particularly concerning given that 35% of Gaza’s farmland is, according to report, within an area Israel has designated a “buffer zone.” B’Tselem, an Israel-based non-governmental organization, has also reported Israel’s use of Palestinian land to treat its industrial waste, an issue that is contributing to environmental degradation and posing a threat to people living in the vicinity of the waste treatment facilities.

Water has become a potent symbol of the conflict. With Israel, since 1967, largely controlling the water resources in the Occupied Territories, the UN report notes significant problems in Palestinian access, usage and development of water resources. In the West Bank’s Area C, which makes up 60% of the territory, the Palestinian Authority reportedly does not have access to the agricultural lands and underground reservoirs. And while Israelis in both Israel and the Occupied Territories enjoy access to enough water for personal and commercial use, Palestinians experience frequent shortages because of both technical failures and Israel-imposed obstacles that restrict their ability to replace old pipelines and drill wells. In a 2016 report, the European Parliament Research Service found that residents of Israel and Israelis in Palestinian territories enjoyed three times as much water per person per day as Palestinians in the West Bank.

Gaza’s water problems are much worse. The special rapporteur describes them as “a crisis verging on humanitarian catastrophe.” An estimated 96% of the Coastal Aquifer, Gaza’s primary source of water, has been found “unfit for human consumption” because of over-pumping and the seepage of sewage. And, an estimated third of the monthly wages of the already underemployed and impoverished population is reportedly spent on water purchases, with many simply using the tainted water from the barely operational public taps. The latter occurs at a time when access to healthcare and essential medicines is already a challenge in Gaza due to war-related damage to infrastructure as well as severe Israel-imposed travel restrictions.

The well-documented violence in the territories persists, and instances of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank are reportedly increasing (and unlikely to stop as Israeli settlement building continues). In this climate of stress, fear and insecurity, the Humanitarian Country Team found that at least 260,000 Palestinians need mental health and psychosocial support.

Whatever differences may exist among Christians about Israel’s domestic politics or the best ways to address the state’s real and significant security challenges, all must at least agree that Palestinians, like all humans, should be afforded the opportunity to live in dignity. Christians ought to be especially aware of and sensitive to the impacts of the kinds of injustices described in the special rapporteur’s report. Christian reticence (and in many cases, silence) in addressing these human rights issues is too often interpreted as acquiescence in the perpetuation of human suffering.

Second, for far too long and consistent with the first problem, many Christians have largely supported one-sided approaches to the conflict—mostly carrots for the Israelis and sticks for the Palestinians—and failed to consistently demand from both parties the hard concessions required to make peace even remotely possible.

It’s time more Christians oppose one-sided approaches to the conflict.

In the last two years, the United States has closed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) offices in Washington and cut off much needed aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In the same period, despite the troubling implications and international outcry, it has moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, proclaimed the Golan Heights Israeli territory, ceased to refer to the Palestinian territories as “occupied,” and threatened the International Criminal Court if it ever investigated any matter pertaining to Israel. Nothing appears to have been asked of Israel in return. In the face of such partiality, little wonder Palestinians have come to believe there is much more to lose from engaging in an American-led peace process than from abstaining altogether.

As a group with a peace-making mandate, Christians ought to be aware that successful peacemaking requires that both parties’ concerns are heard and legitimate grievances taken seriously. It also involves disrupting unhelpful entrenched dynamics and making hard and sometimes politically risky choices. It bears repeating that Palestinians are most concerned about their right to self-determination, a right enshrined in the first articles of the U.N. Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Israelis are most concerned about security, also a fundamental matter essential for every state.

To become better peacemakers in this complex and volatile situation, more Christians should (a) begin to see Palestinians first as people rather than as a problem to be overcome, (b) acknowledge the legitimacy of their human rights concerns, and (c) require that Israel, the more powerful party in that conflict, recognize the same. If Christians are unwilling to do this, they might as well simply ignore the oft-quoted biblical admonition to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:6) because through their silences and inaction, especially on the human rights issues, they are effectively working against it.

Evangelical Christians and the Politics of the Golan Heights

The United States recently recognized Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights. As part of its coverage of the event, a Christian broadcaster interviewed Secretary of State Pompeo, asking him, among other questions, whether the U.S. president had “been raised [by God] for such a time as this,” and if he could be likened to Queen Esther—a character in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible—who was instrumental in saving the Jews from genocide under King Xerxes. The Secretary affirmed the possibility, and unsurprisingly, the segment raised many eyebrows, including mine. My concern, however, was not the Secretary’s response; it was the question. The invocation of God in the contentious matter and the obvious presumption that the situation was somehow his doing, seemed to close (or at least attempt to) an important debate that Christians, particularly U.S.-based evangelical Protestants, should be having about how they influence Israel’s domestic politics.

Many Christians feel a strong connection to ancient and modern Israel because of their significance in Christianity’s history, theology and, for some, its future. Although hardly unified across denominations, Israel, both as a concept and a nation, remains an important component of Christianity’s self-understanding. And, although that connection is not problematic in and of itself, it becomes so when it hinders Christians from honestly and seriously considering inconvenient facts about modern Israel. Those politico-legal facts and the tensions they present, however, must be resolved, not uncritically dismissed through questionable references to “God plan.”

In this case, Christians must seriously consider the following: First, Golan Heights is Syrian territory. Second, Israel assumed control of the area by military force in 1967 and, for all practical purposes, annexed it on December 14, 1981 at the adoption of the Golan Heights Law. Third, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 497  (just three days later), declaring Israel’s decision to impose its jurisdiction on the Golan “null and void and without international legal effect” and reaffirming the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force under the U.N. Charter. The UN, of which Israel is a member, has never recognized Israel’s control of the Golan, and continues to consider it an occupation. Fourth, the United States (alone and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council), aware of Israel’s singular and very real security challenges and the Golan’s strategic value to that security, has not until now endorsed Israel’s control of the area. In its yearly human rights reports, the U.S. Department of State has consistently referred to the Golan Heights as “Israeli-occupied,” until 2017 (compare reports found here).

Moreover, despite the fanfare surrounding the signing of the proclamation, it appears to make no practical difference—the United Nations will not change its position; Syria and other Arab states will not accept it, it simply aggravates them as widely reported; Israel will continue to control the area and build settlements there as it has for the last several decades; and the usual flares of violence that have characterized the Golan for years will likely continue. Needless to say, the idea of one foreign country giving (or attempting to give) another foreign country the territory of yet another is highly improper in modern international relations (not “miraculous”).

Given these facts, the administration’s decision is puzzling. Statements that formal recognition enhances Israel’s security are unpersuasive.  So, like everyone else, Christians ought to be asking why the US has decided to do this now or at all.

One plausible and persuasive explanation for this puzzle, as many have observed, is the upcoming elections—the first in about two weeks in Israel, and the second in 2020 in the United States. The proclamation gives the impression of a significant foreign policy achievement and apparently pleases the “religious” or “far right” segments of the relevant electorates. If the interview is indicative, many are pleased indeed.

There are two important lessons for Christians in this episode. First, Christians may have the liberty to support whatever political action they choose, but they must be careful about using God’s name to legitimate their preferences. Second, Christians should examine all behaviors and motives because not doing so is to choose gullibility (not faith) and to become perpetually ripe for political manipulation.

Remember the victims of Cyclone Idai

Last week, Cyclone Idai landed on Mozambique, devastating Beira, the country’s fourth largest city, and flooding areas in Zimbabwe and Malawi. As of today, various reports have cited between approximately 300 and 600 deaths, with the numbers expected to rise as the waters recede. The UN reports that “tens of thousands” have lost their homes.

The most immediate needs are for food and water, blankets, and health and emergency kits to help address crush and trauma injuries. Given the heightened risk for waterborne diseases, there is also a need for cholera kits.

Such disasters are particularly devastating for the poor who often do not have access to the benefits provided by social safety nets. It will be a long road to recovery for many of them. To find out how you can help, start here:

What’s going on in Africa in 2019?

There is much more going on in Africa besides persistent poverty, disease and political unrest.  Foresight Africa, a 2019 report recently published by the Brookings Institution, presents an encouraging but complex picture. Here are a few highlights.

Business and Economic Development

Of the world’s fastest growing economies this year, almost half will be African. There are increasing opportunities for trade and investments throughout the continent spurred on by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. The growing business opportunities are fueled by a growing and urbanizing population, increased industrialization, improvements in infrastructure, and new innovations in agriculture and mineral resource industries.

Corruption and Governance

Despite persisting concerns about corruption and its impact on institutional stability and economic growth, public governance has been improving consistently throughout the continent over the last decade. Countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Morocco and Kenya showed the greatest improvements in this area. About 80% of African citizens reside in states that have improved in political participation and human rights. Although Africans continue to be mostly dissatisfied (45%, according to a survey) with the state of democracy on the continent, the organization of elections has steadily improved in a large number of countries. What is yet to be seen is whether these changes result in the entrenchment of democratic governance over time.

Aid and Debt

The report mentioned little about development aid, highlighting instead the growing involvement of China on the continent. One contributor, however, noted that future aid should be used to help “the least successful countries,” with a focus on supporting rather than setting their policies.

Debt continues to have a stranglehold on African states. The costs of servicing debt are increasing and many countries are at risk of debt distress. It is apparent that sustainable financing for the continent’s development will remain a challenge if Africa’s debt is not addressed effectively. Governments and international stakeholders will need to implement better debt management strategies.

Looking Ahead…

Overall, the report presented a mixed and complex picture of the continent. While there are significant improvements in health and other development indicators, youth unemployment remains high as does the need for greater opportunity in education and skills training. The positive economic development trends occur at a time when the World Data Lab notes that this year Africa will be home to 70% of the world’s poor (mostly in Nigeria and the DRC). There are also predictions that by 2030 an additional 13 African states will be among the poorest countries in the world. As dire as these predictions may sound, if the continent takes advantage of the present opportunities, the future may be quite different.


The year in human rights, Christianity and global affairs

It’s been quite a year in human rights, Christianity, and global affairs. The international human rights agenda was dealt a serious blow by the withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council. We saw in the separation of children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border a stark reminder of what can happen when states resist their obligations under the Refugee Convention or fail to find and implement solutions that address the root causes of flight from troubled states. We also witnessed the reassertion of women’s rights through the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement. The “Unite the Right” rally that came a year after Charlottesville reminded us of the hidden but potent and menacing racism that persists even in the most progressive of societies, and the yellow vests protests in France continue to remind us of what happens when economic well-being and rights are neglected.

In Christianity, we saw an increase in the number of religious freedom cases in U.S. state courts as well as at the Supreme Court, demonstrating that the U.S., like other states in the West, is nowhere close to resolving the deeply divisive issues arising from the balancing of religious rights with other rights (note the many religious rights cases that have come before the European Court of Human Rights). There were also more revelations and allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic church and protestant churches. The persecution of Christians also continued as religious restrictions rose globally.

In global affairs, among many crises, we saw an escalation of the Syrian conflict that has brought untold destruction; a continuing famine in northeast Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan; persisting conflict in Ukraine; political and economic turmoil in Venezuela that has driven out millions; and a continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict whose resolution seems even further after the U.S.’s unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) remains as uncertain as its implications for EU stability. The nature, extent and implications of cyberwarfare among states continue to be a growing concern, and brewing beneath it all are concerns about another looming global financial crisis as well as the impacts of improperly managed climate change. All this is happening in the context of a fracturing international order, where the very idea of “international cooperation” has become suspect as more and more nations turn inward.

Despite these challenges, we also saw many positive signs that humanity remains willing to fight for better as its fragile institutions showed remarkable and surprising resilience. This was evident in the women’s marches, the many protests that followed the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the U.S. Congress’s refusal to simply ignore it; the protests over family separation; how churches continued to assist troubled immigrants, feed the hungry, and serve the spiritual needs of their communities; the Asia-Pacific’s pledge to promote women’s empowerment; and the U.N.’s recent adoption of the Global Compact for Migration aimed at easing the suffering and chaos accompanying present migration trends.

Although these efforts appear insufficient, we ought to remember that hidden behind troubling headlines are much more positive trends. By most measures, extreme poverty is declining and although scholars continue to debate whether we are indeed living in the most peaceful period in human history, it is encouraging that they are having the debate at all. Most of all, the fact that most of us continue to hope and strive for a better world should give us hope for and reason to believe in the possibility of living in one. We can indeed raise a glass and toast to hope this holiday season.

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

The Christmas Echo

(*poem available for purchase as a Christmas card at Quietude)

‘Twas something about a child this time. Many heard it, but few understood it. The mad men–or prophets as they called themselves–often said unintelligible things, many of them rooted in their fantasies and longings for a better world. But this one echoed: a child would be born; a child would be born …

Time passed and the echo faded. Life returned to its mundane imperfect glory–rising and sleeping, buying and selling, wars and rumors of wars. But hidden in the shadows and silences of the human heart, many longed and secretly hoped to find substance in the echoes of mad men. If only a child is born …

Then one day, in the fullness of time, an unusual star appeared in the sky. Dreamers said it was a sign and swore they had heard the echo again. Many shrugged shoulders of indifference, while others dismissed their tale as utterances of mad men. But somewhere in a manger, angels stood at attention and wise men bowed as they beheld the child who would change the world.